BOSTON — The Boston Red Sox had the second-best start in franchise history, and still they are struggling to shake the New York Yankees in the AL East.
So manager Alex Cora doesn't have to fear that they will lose their focus when they return from the All-Star break.
"There's a few good teams out there, that they're going to make it interesting in the second half," he said last week. "I still feel we can be better. We've still got some challenges in front of us. Just because we had a good first half of the season doesn't mean we're going to go all the way."
After winning 12 of their last 13 games to reach the break with the best record in baseball (68-30), the Red Sox have a season-high 4 1/2-game lead in the division. Their .694 winning percentage is second-best to the 1946 team that Ted Williams led to the All-Star break at .701 (54-23). That team started 68-28-2, the only one in franchise history to fare better in its first 98 games.
"Hopefully when we come back we'll pick it up right where we left off," shortstop Xander Bogaerts said. "The team that we have, with this group of guys, I don't see no reason that this won't continue."
They have had more than their share of exceptional individual performances, too.
Mookie Betts'.359 batting average leads all of the majors, and his slugging and on-base percentage are also the best in baseball. J.D. Martinez is the major league leader with 80 RBIs, and his 29 homers are tied for the most.
All-Star starter Chris Sale is No. 1 with 188 strikeouts, and closer Craig Kimbrel is second with 30 saves, including 21 in a row.
"We have a very powerful, potent offense that can score from anywhere, and a good bullpen," Betts said. "I think just keep doing what we've been doing in the first half. It seemed to work pretty good."
The Red Sox have had regular season success before, including AL East titles in each of the past two years that were the first back-to-back division championships in franchise history. But they won just one playoff game over those two postseasons, and manager John Farrell was replaced by Cora.
A 42-year-old former infielder who was on the roster of Boston's 2007 World Series championship team, Cora was on the bench for the Houston Astros when they won it all last year. But he noted that only one pitcher on his current team — Brandon Workman — has a World Series ring.
David Price has never won a postseason start. Sale had never even appeared in a playoff game until last year, when he picked up a pair of losses (one in an otherwise strong relief appearance).
"(The team) understands that the last few years they didn't finish it," Cora said. "If you look at their career and they retire right now, they should be proud of their accomplishments, but, at the same time, they want a ring, they want it. That's what they're pushing for."
Cora gave up a chance to be in the All-Star Game dugout when he left the World Series champion Astros to take over in Boston. But he said he was proud of former players like Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Charlie Morton, and he was looking forward to seeing how the five Red Sox on the AL roster would do.
And he knows how to make sure he doesn't miss the 2019 game in Cleveland.
"Like my daughter Camila said: 'Next year,'" he said. "'There's always next year.'"